My friend Gavin posted this blog post on his Facebook feed today. It is by a woman called Gretchen Kelly. In it she talks about something called de-escalation.
De-escalation, she says, is something that all women learn to do, and which most men do not know that women do. De-escalation is something that women have to do in order to get through their daily life.
So what is it?
It is the method of coping with every day sexism. It is shrugging off offensive comments. It is choosing to walk away from people who manhandle us as if we were their property. It is learning to ignore the stares that undress us and which we know are calculating what they would like to do to us when we are undressed.
Gavin posted that he has seen some brave posts inspired by Gretchen’s. Mine is not brave, I don’t think, but certain things she said resonated with me, and I certainly felt inspired to blog about them.
I thought about all the examples Gretchen gives in her post, and apart from being abused or raped, which I am hugely grateful has never happened to me, every single thing she mentions in her post has happened to me. Every single thing. Not only that, but she is right. I de-escalated every time. I sucked it up. I took it on the chin. I normalised it in my own head.
I have ignored comments about my face, my arse, my tits, my propensity for having sex or no sex, from random strangers in the street. I don’t invite these comments. I don’t wear a sign round my neck saying: ‘Please make a judgmental comment about my boobs today.’ I don’t ‘ask’ for it. I just go about my business. Other people make me their business.
I have walked into pubs, or sat on trains, or have been waiting to meet friends and been stared at by men in that way, that way that means their eyes are like hands all over you. I have lived with that discomfort.
I have been verbally abused for not being thrilled by having a come on shouted at me by a man, or because I have walked away from someone in a club who felt it was their right to touch me without my permission.
Even when I was pregnant I had men I knew, men I liked walk up to me and grab my belly like it belonged to them, like I was their property. I appreciate that their intentions were not sexual in this case, but they were possessive and proprietary. There was no thought to ask my permission to put their hands on me.
I have walked, and still walk, down dark roads with my phone at my ear, ready to call someone or pretend to talk to someone just in case.
I habitually walk alone with my keys in my hand, not because I’m going to my car, but because if something happens to me I will have a weapon. It has become such an ingrained habit that I even do this on the school run.
Worse. When I was 18 and at university, we were told we had to register with the GP on campus and go and have a routine health check. I went with a bunch of friends. We all waited for each other. When I went in, all the usual stuff happened, blood pressure, temperature, weight etc. Then he put his hand down my top and gave both my boobs a thorough squeezing. He said: ‘No lumps there then.’ I was shocked, as this had never been part of the routine before, but just accepted it. Afterwards, as we sat in the bar waiting for a drink, I said: ‘the boob thing was a bit weird.’ to which everyone else replied: ‘what boob thing?’ and I realised he had groped me and abused his position of trust. I did not report it. I just decided never to go to the Dr on campus again and dismissed it from my mind as something horrible that happened but which was over now and best forgotten.
Even worse, the one time I was at work and (stereotypically) got groped by a manager while I was standing, minding my own business at the photocopier, I went from disgust, to alarm, to fear, to wondering if it was my fault, to deciding not to do anything about it in case I got fired because I knew that ‘nobody would believe me’ and that they would find a way to de-escalate it for me if I didn’t do it myself. I decided that I had already been humiliated enough, so I accepted it and got back to work. It happened in the space of about five minutes.
I talked about this issue with a man last year, when we were discussing why my blog posts/attitudes/demeanour had suddenly become more feminist. I explained that I did not want my children to have to live with what I lived with. I used the groping story as an example. His response:
‘Oh, well you can’t use that as a reason. It happened twenty years ago. You’re behind the times. It doesn’t happen now. That’s not what life is like now. Things have moved on.’
I didn’t believe him then, and after reading Gretchen’s post I don’t believe it now.
On Saturday, after our day in London at the Mumsnet Blogfest, Jason and I got a late train home. The train was packed. One of the football teams had been playing in London and there were a lot of fans on the train coming home. It was noisy, it was rowdy, it was drunken.
Jason slept. I couldn’t. I watched the people on the train.
On the next table down from me was a Japanese girl. She was beautiful, really striking to look at. She was wearing a fake fur coat that skimmed her backside. Apart from that it looked like she was just wearing tights and briefs under it.
She sat alone until some football fans got on, and then had to share her table with them. She kept herself to herself, was quiet and self contained. To be fair, not one man said anything to her, and I watched her as she dozed, and nothing untoward happened.
Until we got off the train.
Two things happened in fact.
Firstly, from further down the train a tall, gorgeous black girl walked past me to the exit. She was exquisite. Caramel skin that rippled with light, elegant features, fabulous hair, piled in one of those styles that looks effortless but probably takes a week to do. The gold at her ears glinted against her skin and her swing coat swung as she walked, emphasising her poise and grace. She was properly beautiful.
As I watched her, I noticed movement behind her. One of the football supporters was watching her, just as I was watching her, except his watching was different.
He was openly staring, mouth wide, eyes glazed. He was practically panting, and because he had had a drink or two he wasn’t even trying to hide it. In fact, he craned his head round, and nearly fell out of his seat just so that he could watch her all the way up the carriage.
I forgot to appreciate her beauty. Instead I could not stop watching him watching her. She could not see him. Her back was to him, and I suspect if she had seen him, she would have de-escalated it, as Gretchen describes. I could see it though. I could see everything and it made me sad and horrified that this was allowed.
No, he wasn’t doing anything, except that he was.
As she exited the carriage, the Japanese girl got up to leave too. As she reached for her bag, her coat rode up to show that she was just wearing some sort of silk underwear. All the men who were sitting round her looked at each other and back at her, and then, as she started towards the exit they kept nodding to each other and turning to watch her, just as the other man had done to the black girl, but this time they were a pack.
It was predatory. Properly like a pack.
It was horrible, and upsetting, and just like the other girl, she did not know, and did not see, and you could say that because of that, it did not matter, except that I knew and I saw, and it mattered.
We followed her off the train, and I stopped and watched her to the foot of the stairs, and Jason asked me why, and I told him that I was concerned for her, and just wanted to watch her to safety as far as I could.
I wanted to walk her home.
I worried about her all the way home.
Someone is bound to say that she was asking for it, because she was dressed provocatively, which I totally don’t buy, because I don’t care if you’re naked, nobody has the right to own you like that. Also, if you had seen her, nothing about her was sexual. She was quiet, and utterly self-contained, and yes, demure. Nothing about her screamed ‘undress me’ or ‘fuck me’ or ‘hurt me’, and yet if something had happened to her on her way home, you can bet that someone, somewhere would have played the ‘asking for it’ line because of the way she was dressed.
So, yes. Sadly, life is still like that, and de-escalation is a thing we do every day, and I suspect that she is right and lots of men don’t understand, not because they are stupid or cruel or don’t care about women, but because these moments are, I suspect, as far away from their understanding of everyday life as mine is of what it’s like to be Beyonce.